In St. Louis, Old Warehouses, New Promise

Posted by LUCY FERRISS on 10/02/2005

BOB CASSILLY doesn't want you to learn anything at his museum. "I'm not into education," he said while welding a "beanstalk" out of twisted, rusted metal tubes. "I'm into experience." 

The City Museum, 701 North 15th Street, (314) 231-2489, is 96,000 square feet of experience in St. Louis. Created entirely of reused factory and warehouse materials in the revived Washington Avenue Loft District, Mr. Cassilly's vision of climbing tunnels, rolling slides, water chutes and urban labyrinths draws adults and children to engage with the sinuous flotsam of industrial civilization. 

City Museum, which opened in 1997, is at the heart of a large-scale revitalization spearheaded by the Downtown Partnership, which has created a trendy, family-friendly neighborhood concentrated in a 10-block area of abandoned garment warehouses. Young couples as well as empty nesters are snatching up the lofts (including some above the museum) and supporting the area's theater, galleries, furniture stores, nightclubs and restaurants. Unlike the more famous Laclede's Landing jazz scene, which lurks under Interstate 70 and the Eads Bridge, the Loft District is not separated from the rest of the city by expressway or overpass. "People are moving back from exurbia," said Jerry Cloar, president of the Downtown Partnership. "Our motto is 'Live it up downtown.' " 

Among the area's enticements are restaurants like Mosaic, around the corner from City Museum, at 1101 Lucas Avenue, (314) 621-6001,, featuring fusion cuisine and balcony dining. Red Moon, at 1500 St. Charles Street, (314) 436-9700,, with its pan-Asian cuisine, was created by two longtime Chicago restaurateurs, Doug Roth and Jerry Kleiner. Its muted, glowing interior conveys the tongue-in-cheek charm of the district. 

Nearby, Kitchen K at 1000 Washington Avenue, (314) 241-9900,, occupies the first floor of the Merchandise Mart, a 19th-century masterpiece once threatened with demolition. At night, light spills out from the Kbar, attracting a young crowd that enjoys a list of microbrews and martinis, the restaurant's gleaming open kitchen and a changing display of local art. 

Businesses are opening at an almost frenzied pace. One warm day in July, eight enterprises opened in a four-block area. They ranged from art galleries to a combined mail service store and coffeehouse. 

Though touted as a family-friendly area, the Loft District has not turned its back on St. Louis's music tradition. Performers appear regularly at clubs like Rue 13, 1311 Washington Avenue, (314) 588-7070, and Velvet, 1301 Washington Avenue, (314) 241-8178. 

Guests at the Renaissance Grand hotel, 800 Washington Avenue, (314) 621-9600,, can easily miss all this activity. The potted plants lining the sidewalks end abruptly at Ninth Street, and the cavernous St. Louis Center mall stands practically empty, an indication of the problems still facing the Loft District. For instance, there is a dispute over feeding the homeless in a park adjacent to the district. 

This challenge - to create something astonishing out of derelict beauty - drives City Museum and other enterprises. 

Asked if he knew what he'd be putting at the top of the beanstalk he was making for the museum, Mr. Cassilly scratched his head. "I guess we'll have to keep going to find out."